Using One Language to Learn Another

Update, 19 December: Aaron of The Everyday Language Learner has very kindly linked to this post in his link roundup for the entire year of 2012. I’m so honored! Welcome to all readers from The Everyday Language Learner and be sure to stick around for language-related posts.

I admit, I am skeptical of people who learn two languages from scratch at the same time. Usually, this does not work. My good friend L. was learning two languages during our undergraduate years (and not just any two languages – she chose Korean and Russian, which are notoriously difficult languages for English speakers). Now, a mere two years after (her) graduation, she is burnt out from languages and does not study or use either at all. (Okay, fine, I think that some people might be able to handle this in certain situations, as mentioned in this post by Mithridates at Page F30, but that is a very specific scenario  – i.e. the article in question examined simultaneous learning of Spanish and Portuguese, which are related languages.)

Anyway, my advice to language learners is to stick to one language at a time, unless you have a really, really good reason for learning two languages at once. However, once you have achieved a reasonable level in one language – let’s say at least a B2 level on the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages or at least an ILR Level 3 on the Interagency Language Roundtable scale – it can be beneficial to start learning another foreign language through the foreign language you’ve already learned.

Consider the following: earlier this year, I worked on Serbian for about a month. I adored the language but was afraid of getting it confused with my Russian, so I stopped. But I am completely unable to stay away from Serbian, so as an experiment I was reading some Serbian tutorials on a Russian website. I learned more from this website in an evening than I learned from my Serbian textbook in a month.

It’s not like I was using a bad textbook or anything. I was using the Alexander & Elias-Bursac textbook, which is supposed to be one of the foremost Bosnian/Croatian/Serbian textbooks in this country. It is a thorough textbook, but the material is sometimes presented in a confusing manner. The grammar explanations are a bit hard to get through (and I’m a self-professed grammar nerd!).

I am thinking of trying some Serbian again – except this time, I’d use Russian-language materials to approach the language.

What do you think about using one foreign language to learn another?

Image credit.


5 thoughts on “Using One Language to Learn Another

  1. Hi!
    Good post. I think it might work, but one has to be careful. As you know, I’m using Russian and Polish to learn Slovak. I would say it’s going rather well – knowing other Slavic languages gives me an understanding of the language that many others may lack. I kind of get it. In my head I’m always comparing the things I hear and read in Slovak to Russian and/or Polish (mostly looking for similarities instead of differences).


    1. I agree, it is important to be careful. There’s a fine line between comparing the language one already knows with the language one is learning, and simply using a language one already knows to learn another language. In my opinion, the latter is preferable, while the former is more suited to studying linguistics, not actually learning the language itself.


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